The Supreme Court on March 24, 2023 protected members of Christian community from coercive action by the Uttar Pradesh Police on the basis of an FIR registered under the State’s anti-religious conversion law.
A Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud issued notice to the State of Uttar Pradesh after senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the petitioners, said the FIR was a “cock-and-bull story” of “mass conversion”. He said the police action amounted to the “abuse of the process of law”.
“I want to share something with Your Lordships… If I may be permitted… What is happening? Things are going completely out of control… Your Lordships are the only forum before which we have come. We are not protected by the police or the Magistrates. You alone can save us… They are saying forcible conversions… Children were arrested and released only at midnight,” Mr. Dave made an emotional appeal on behalf of the petitioners led by Dr. Mathew Samuel.
He said the police have filed multiple FIRs against the same persons in the same incident, violating their fundamental right under Article 20(2) of the Constitution, which mandates that “no individual shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once”.
“Mr. Dave, we are here. Therefore we have issued notice and stayed any coercive action pending further orders,” Chief Justice Chandrachud reassured.
The petition challenges a February 17, 2023 decision of the Allahabad High Court refusing to quash the FIR registered under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021 at Fatehpur in the State.
The petitioners said the incident which began the train of events occurred on February 14 last year when the members of the Evangelical Church of India, including the petitioners, were gathered in a church to pray and worship together on the occasion of Maundy Thursday. According to them, a mob barged into the church premises, began communal sloganeering, illegally locked the door of the Church with the congregants inside and called the police.
The police, according to the petitioners, instead of assisting the church members, “dragged” them to the station and registered an FIR under State anti-religious law and several sections of the Indian Penal Code.
The informant/complainant had identified himself as Joint Secretary, Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the FIR itself, the petition alleged.
On January 23 this year, a second FIR was lodged by another person at the same police station with respect to the same incident. The informant in the first FIR was a witness in the second FIR.
The petition alleged that the second FIR was lodged to tide over a flaw that only an aggrieved person could file a complaint under the 2021 law.
“The purported incompetence of the informant to register an FIR under Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021 cannot be remedied by registration of a second FIR, especially when the second FIR has arisen out of the same incident,” the petition argued.
It contended that the High Court’s finding that the first FIR “is of no consequence” was absurd, especially when the probe was on and several petitioners had already secured regular or anticipatory bail. Mr. Dave said 37 members of the congregation were forced to “run” after the registration of the second FIR.
The court listed the case for hearing after four weeks.